The Painter and the Blind Composer [redux]

 

Part 1

Blind Composer [B]

May I touch it?

Painter [P]

Yes, of course. Let me help you.

B

It’s much bigger than I had imagined. How big is it? The frame is thick.  I feel what seem like staples. You paint even the edges? It isn’t oil, is it.

P

It’s X by Y… I fold and the stable the canvas over the frame, so yes, it’s edges are painted too. No, it’s ink and acrylic. How did you know?

B

Ah… much larger than I am. Well, it couldn’t be oil because it doesn’t smell of oil, nor does it have much texture. Is it canvas?

P

Yes, it’s canvas though I often paint on watercolor paper.

B

Is it the only one?

P

I don’t understand what you mean?

B

Are there other paintings beside it?

P

Yes. One on each side, but they are a couple of meters away.

B

May I touch them also?

P

Yes, I’ll take you to the left first, then to the one of the right.

B

They are both the same size as the first I touched, aren’t they?

P

Yes.

B

The textures are different. So they must look different. So each of them is the only one.

P

I suppose that’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

B

Well, you wouldn’t paint the same painting twice, would you?

P

No, I suppose I wouldn’t. But even if I wanted to, and even if i could, I would choose not to. But I don’t think it’s possible to paint the same painting twice.

B

You mean like Heraclitus’s river.

P

Indeed, exactly like that.

B

Do you really mean, ‘exactly’ like that? A river is not exactly the same as a painting is it?

P

No. You’re right of course.

B

Tell me how they are different. You see, when one is blind, great subtleties are greatly significant. I’ve never seen a river. Though I have swum in them and can tell the difference between the Seine and the Thames.  Nor have I ever seen a painting. but I know when one painting is different than another, sometimes at least. I have only ideas about what they are, really. Though when I’m allowed to touch them, or smell them, I do come to know at least something about them beyond what I”ve read or been told.

P

So this is why you asked me to touch the other paintings? So you could compare them and come to understand how they are different from each other?

B

Yes. How could I know much about the middle painting if didn’t have some idea about the others?

P

Right. I understand the dilemma. Returning to Heraclitus, and the difference between a river and a painting, I can tell you this. When I paint with ink it’s like painting with water. It’s fluid like a river is fluid. But when I paint with acrylic, it’s like painting with the mud you may have encountered on the river bank. I have to use different techniques to spread them.

B

I can imagine that. Maybe that’s similar to degrees of pitch in music, to high and low pitch. Perhaps your use of ink is like piano and your use of acrylic like forte.

P

That’s an intriguing idea. Yes, I think we can compare painting and musical composition in some evocative ways. It certainly requires more effort to push acrylic around than is required for ink. Ink requires great delicacy, at least sometimes. Other times I simply spill it onto the canvas or paper and shift them around so it runs in a way I can only partially control. But either way, its action is very fast as it’s absorbed and once the mark is made, it’s made, and I can’t change it. But with acrylic, I have to make it do what I want it to. It’s much more forgiving than ink and easier to change if I don’t like it.

B

We do have the idea of composition in common. And I think we share a vocabulary, though words like ‘color’, ‘tone’, and ‘hue’ refer to very different things in music and painting.  I know that Debussy was a great ‘colorist’, and have heard that Kandinsky thought of his work as based in jazz.

P

Indeed. And both music and painting have a great deal to do with spatiality.

B

True. But music has much more to do with time. Though it does have to do with sonic density, and in that way one can describe it as spatial.

P

I’ve been told on occasion the some of my paintings must be interpreted as temporal because the marks I make can be seen as manifesting speed and acceleration.

B

That’s compelling to imagine. So you paint with something like ‘tempos’ in mind? Would you say that you paint in ¾ time?

P

More like in sixteenths….

B

So your paintings are very fast!

P

Often, yes, they are. But some are slow, some are fast. But usually they combine different tempos simultaneously.

B

Really?!  Then they are orchestral, with different instruments playing at different tempos at the same time?

P

Yes. I would say that that is a close analogy.

B

And what of key signatures?  Do you paint in the key of ‘C’?

P

Perhaps. But the analogy breaks down here. For a note, I would substitute the term, color. I might paint the ‘key’ of blue, for example. The middle painting we began with uses a palette or perhaps a ‘scale’ of blue.

B

I’ve been told that a single color has as many variants as a musical note. Would you say that a ‘bassoon blue’ exists? Analogous to a bassoon C note?

P

Ha! What a spectacular idea! If bassoon blue exists it might be cobalt. There might even be a way to demonstrate a series of parallel’s between musical notes and color hues if we think of them both as vibrations or frequencies!  Perhaps that has been done.

B

If it has then it would be true that what I hear as bassoon C might be the equivalent of what you see as bassoon blue. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous thing! Note: cut to bassoon music playing as blue paintings scroll by.

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Part 2

B

Well, now that we’ve established a way to translate, or perhaps better put, transform, music into painting and painting into music, describe to me what this middle painting looks like.

P

Alright. I’ll do my best…

B

Don’t be too concerned, dear Painter, I may be blind but I do have a knowledge of geometry, and of the human figure, since, after all, I do have a body myself, though I’ve never seen it. Perhaps that is a good thing…

P

Oh please! dear Composer. You’ve been told often, I’m sure, how beautiful you are!

B

Your flattery falls flat with me, Painter,  since I have no conception of visual beauty, only musical beauty.

P

Beauty is in the ear of the listener, is it?

B

Well put, indeed! But I sense that you’re stalling…

P

I see that intuition doesn’t require eyes.  Well… I have to forewarn you that your knowledge of geometry and the human form will do you no good… will do me no good I should say, in aiding my description because my paintings aren’t figurative or architectural or geometric or realistic…

B

Ah… they are what is called abstract, then?

P

Yes. And precisely here we encounter the first impasse that we will need to overcome, I suspect. Music is very ordered, mathematical in fact, classical music is, at least. I know that music is often considered an ‘abstract’ art, but musical abstraction and that of painting are quite different, aren’t they?

B

Having no experience of visual abstraction, I’m not qualified to say. We are in a spot here, aren’t we.

P

Yes, I think we may be. Nor am I, really, qualified to speak about musical abstraction, not as qualified as you are. I listen to a great deal of music of all kinds from all eras, so I have at least a toe hold there. But perhaps you should first describe to me what musical abstraction is. That way I can better look for analogies for our different uses of the term.

B

Stalling again, are we? I’d been warned that you were a sly dog. I don’t mean to insult you. I appreciate cunning in a person. Alright, then. I’m game. Music is abstract in the sense… well… in the sense that… hmmm….

P

Ah ha! Now you see my dilemma.

B

Indeed I do.  Allow me to moot this – music is abstract because it’s made of sound, noise, and silence. It doesn’t appear to us to be a physical thing, because well, it can’t be touched. And for you, I imagine, it’s also abstract because it can’t be seen. It is true though that sound, and therefore music, ‘touches’ us. We can’t put out our hand and grasp it, but our ears, in fact our entire body, can. But for humans, touch and sight are the dominant senses, the perceptual modes which allow us to experience the world as physical, concrete, material, objective. Whereas, we don’t experience sound as physical, usually, as listeners at least, because we don’t think that we experience it, physically.  When in fact we actually do. We choose to reach out and touch something, and, so I’m told, we can choose what we look at or not look at. So we think we have more control when we touch or see something. Seeing and touching give us a sense of power and control over the world. But our ears are passive organs, aren’t they? We can’t choose or not choose what we hear. It just somehow, mysteriously, happens to us. As listeners, we don’t cause it to happen. And anything that just happens to us, that we can’t control, is not part of our body, is separate from us, and that is one way in which music is abstract – it’s something independent of us.

My, I’ve become loquacious. My apologies.

P

Not at all. Please go on.

B

It’s a very different case with musicians, for those who play an instrument. For them, it’s a profoundly physical experience. But oddly, even though they cause music to happen, they can’t make sound happen. For, as you say, sound is only in the ear of the beholder. Even for them, as they perform, they are also passive listeners, just as dependent as listeners are on their ears, perhaps even more dependent because they’ve trained their ears to be expert listeners.

P

So music and sound are very different things?

B

Yes. It’s a very strange situation, isn’t it?  But it gets even stranger. And this brings me to suggest a second way in which music is abstract. Music, like mathematics, even like language, consists of symbols, of notation, and symbols themselves are not concrete things, are they? They only point to concrete things. But they are not the concrete things themselves. They are abstract scratches on a piece of paper that have no physical existence, other than being a mark on paper. By themselves though, they have no meaning. The note, ‘C’, doesn’t have any concrete existence or meaning until the piano key is struck, does it? It’s merely an abstract mark that can only point toward a sound, or be a single element of a word, which itself is only an abstract group of symbols. A musical score is a gathering of symbols into some kind of order that can only represent sounds unfolding in time. But they are not the sounds themselves.

P

You’re very right. This is a very strange set of affairs. I’d say that it’s even paradoxical. You were describing how the musician, the performer, is different from the passive listener. This may be key to thinking about painting. So could you say more about that?

B

Yes, of course. Imagine the musician as she plays. She is in two different places simultaneously. She is intimately engaged in the very physical act of playing her instrument. But at the same time, her brain is on fire with the complex patterns of the abstract symbols of the score, as she translates them into the physical actions of her fingers striking the piano keys or plucking the strings of an upright bass. The act of playing an instrument is a truly miraculous event. Somehow the musician is able to forge or compress purely abstract symbols and abstract sounds into a single thing, a single act, the performance. It’s almost like forcing the north and south poles of a magnet together into a single space and time, into a force, and, we know what happens when that’s done – a great explosion occurs. So a musical performance is an explosion caused when abstract notation and abstract sound are compressed together. Then, and only then,  can one hear Bach or Zappa.

P

Wow! I now  regret turning the tables on you!  I fear that I’ll not be able to rise to the same heights in describing the abstraction of painting.

B

Come now. You’re just being a sly dog again.

P

Don’t be so sure, Composer.

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Part 3

P

I appreciate, Composer, that you wished to touch all three paintings again. I often wish that those with eyes took such care. Is beauty in the fingers of the composer well enough now for me to attempt to rise to the occasion of your discourse on musical abstraction?

B

Yes, dear Painter. I have your work at my fingertips… So do proceed. I’ve even banished all thoughts of geometry, architecture, the human form, and all thoughts of realism, whatever that might be. I’m all ears.

P

Good. Is the chair comfortable enough?

B

Do get on with it Painter!

P

Ahem… Alright… We are in my studio. The walls are white, without color. The ceiling is high. The north wall is formed of large windows that allow the room to be filled with neutral light so it least effects the color of my paintings. This is important because color is light. Paint is the light reflected by pigment. Were the sun to shine on it directly, then it would distort the light of color. This may be similar to the way sound is reflected off the walls, ceiling and floor of the symphony hall. The way Bach’s Cello Suite #5 in C Minor sounds in the Berliner Philharmoniker sounds differently in the Royal Albert Hall.

B

So your paintings look different in different exhibition spaces?

P

Yes. So every individual painting has many different appearances, just as Bach’s Cello Suite # 5 sounds differently when, and wherever, it’s played.

B

So a painting is no different than an musical score?

P

No. It isn’t. Which is why some painters, like Rothko, attempted to control the conditions of lighting in which his paintings were shown. Most museum’s don’t meet his conditions. So to truly see a Rothko painting, you have to travel to Houston to see his works in the Rothko Chapel. where those condition are met. What I’m trying to say is that, because ultimately, painting is about light, and light is variable, to experience, to see, a painting properly is similar to a musical performance in that there are more or less optimal conditions under which it can be viewed. Who is to say whether or not Gould’s Bach played on piano is better or worse than Savall’s Bach played on harpsichord?

B

So what you’re saying is that your bassoon blue has many shades of cobalt alone, depending on where, and how, it’s displayed?

P

Exactly. Yes.

B

So, the painting I’ve touched and compared to the others, is not the only one? This one painting can take many different forms, or, appearances? So, like a score, IF I were able to see, it’s possible that I’d see it in many different ways?

P

Yes. That’s what I’m saying.

B

Alright then. That’s very helpful indeed. Every painting exists like a single note or chord within an envelope of grace notes. Okay. I understand that. Go on.

P

The painting before you is 2.5 meters high, and 1.5 meters wide, approximately. And it’s frame is 10 centimeters think, so depending on how it’s lighted, the frame casts a shadow that make it both a substantial object, while also making it seem to float over the surface of the wall.

B

Like a bassoon solo holding a C whole note for several measures?

P

Yes. Like that, but not the same exactly. In the painting before you, there is a central motif of a blue so pale that it’s almost white. It’s shape, or form,  is spatially three dimensional, while the painted marks, the lines or brush strokes that give it definition take the shape of an elongated human head, though less symmetrically shaped than that. And it’s not a solid object, doesn’t have a continuous surface, but is broken up by contour lines meant only to give it an approximate shape. If you had eyes, you’d see that it has an interior volume, that it is porous, that it is shape that floats, or is suspended in, a much denser background space that implies the physicality of a medium, a density of some other kind of matter, a matter of a different nature than what the motif shape is made of, like a human body floating in a river with it’s currents and eddies and whirlpools, and variable depths.

B

Like a first violinist playing a ‘solo’ line in the midst of a full orchestra accompaniament?

P

Yes. Nearly like that.

B

Okay. I can imagine that. But what does it feel like? What is the fate of your motif? If it’s like a body suspended in a river, will it sink or swim? Is it part of the river? Or, is it ‘something’ else? It is emerging from the river? Or, is it dissolving into it?

P

Perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder.

B

Fair enough. But if it’s painted in the bassoon key of cobalt, then, musically speaking, your motif would be heavy, wouldn’t it? and therefore its natural tendency would be to sink?

P

It would, yes, if the motive were bassoon, or cobalt blue. But it isn’t. If you recall, the motif is a pale shade of blue, and therefore far lighter than cobalt, in the high pitch range of a bassoon, and therefore a figure that floats on the surface, in no danger of being submerged. It’s a dandelion bloom floating over the surface of a dark blue river. But one that’s always in danger of becoming saturated by the river’s substance, and, yes, of eventually becoming heavy and sinking. So it’s fate, in my painting, is depicted as not yet determined. A wind could still lift it into the air and blow it onto a shore where it might bloom again. Or, it might be eaten by a trout or be dashed against a rock where it would dry and die in the heat of the sun.

B

You’re sounding Wagnerian, Painter.

P

Well, I am, after all, dear Composer, German.

B

Ah… I see….

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The Painter and the Blind Composer [redux]

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